Audio interfaces have lots of physical components specifically designed for audio and music production. This includes analog and digital converters, inputs/outputs, a preamp, gain and volume controls. But what about a headphone amp? Is an audio interface a headphone or amp?
In this article I’m going to explain what a headphone amp is, how it works, why you need one, and if an audio interface has an in-built headphone amp or not. I’ll also provide a list of my recommended audio interfaces if you’re looking to buy one.
Is an Audio Interface a Headphone Amp?
Most audio interfaces have in-built headphone amps. Without a headphone amp you wouldn’t be able to provide sufficient enough power to high impedance headphones, like the ones required for mixing and recording. Some audio interfaces even have the option to plug in and power more than one pair of high-performance headphones.
What is a Headphone Amp?
A headphone amplifier is a low-powered amp which delivers electric power to headphones. They’re everywhere these days; in phones, computers, laptops, tablets, car stereos, the list goes on. Whenever you plug one of those small pairs of earphones into your phone, you’re using a headphone amp.
These kinds of earphones though, take such a little amount of power to drive them that they can be powered by your phone’s lithium battery via the small in-built headphone amp. However, larger, more specific, professional headphones -like those used for mixing and recording- require more power.
Yes, you can plug them into your phone or computer’s headphone amp, and yes, they will be powered; but they won’t function as efficiently as using an appropriately sized headphone amp.
Why Do I Need a Headphone Amp?
If you plug in a professional pair of mixing headphones into your phone or computer, they won’t be working optimally. Their frequency response can be limited and when you try to turn them up louder, they will most likely distort as they are not getting sufficient enough power. This why you need a headphone amp. Impedance plays a big part in this.
This is where it starts to get a little technical, but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible. Impedance is a form of resistance, measured in ohms. The higher the impedance, the more resistance a pair of headphones will give to a cable. The lower the impedance, the less resistance a pair of headphones will give. Following so far?
Headphone impedance varies widely, from as low as 16 ohms, all the way to around 600 ohms. High impedance headphones require more power. So, your little phone or computer headphone amp won’t be up for job, which is why you need a more powerful one. Just like the ones built within audio interfaces.
Another reason headphone amps are useful is because they can power more than one set of headphones at a time. This is particularly handy when you have more than one musician in a studio during a recording session.
Are All Professional Headphones High Impedance?
Actually, no. Whilst higher impedance headphones are more common, some audio companies are now starting to produce lower impedance ones. Newer technology now means that high-performance headphones with lower impedances are possible.
For example, Sennheiser recently just released their DT 770 and 990 Pro headphones. Both of which can come in low impedance forms. There are no exact rules, but as a rough guide if your headphones are 32 ohms or below, you don’t really need a headphone amp.
For headphones 50 ohms or higher, then you’d be better off buying a headphone amp or audio interface to power them efficiently. Otherwise, you won’t be getting the most out of them.
Audio Interfaces Are Multifunctional
So, to answer your question, yes, an audio interface is a headphone amp. They have them in-built, among many other physical components essential for recording and playing back high-quality audio. If you want to use one or more pairs of high-performance headphones for recording or mixing, then you need to buy a headphone amp.
If you have a low impedance pair of headphones, you may get away without needing a headphone amp. However, seeing as an audio interface is multifunctional and has one in-built, why wouldn’t you just buy an audio interface? Check out my list of The Best Audio Interfaces in 2021 if you need help deciding.
I hope you found this article informative. Have any questions? Comment down below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.